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The Somali pirate gang who have been holding a British couple hostage since October fled with their captives yesterday after militants linked to al-Qaida took over their territory.
Paul and Rachel Chandler, who are both in their 50s, were bundled into a car yesterday when al-Shabaab insurgents moved into the pirate stronghold of Harardhere in the coastal region of north Somalia.
The Islamic group usually operates in southern and central Somalia but has shifted north in a possible attempt to crack down on piracy. If al-Shabaab militants take control of the pirate strongholds, the 300-plus foreign hostages could be in even greater danger.
Maslah Yare, who leads the pirate gang that is holding the Chandlers, said the group fled into a forest to escape the militants after they moved into the town.
"Al-Shabaab militants are chasing us," Yare told The Associated Press.
The Chandlers were kidnapped in October while on a yachting holiday. The pirates seized their 38ft yacht in the Indian Ocean as they sailed toward Tanzania.
Yare claimed that al-Shabaab has offered to pay £1.2m for the Chandlers but that his group is demanding £1.6m.
He said that pirates would abandon the Chandlers if the militants close in on them "because our lives are more important to us than holding on to them".
Ahmed Salad, a local businessman, said an advance team of al-Shabaab militants entered the pirates' territory in two vehicles on Sunday night after they forced out moderate Islamists from nearby villages. He said the militants later withdrew.
Another resident of Harardhere said the pirates had started to withdraw from the town to another pirate enclave called Hobyo.
"The town is nearly empty after the pirates have left it," said businessman Yusuf Arush. "It is calm but tense."
Drugs, alcohol and prostitution have thrived in Harardhere since it became a pirate stronghold. Such activities are opposed by al-Shabaab, an ultra-conservative Islamist militia that carries out lashings, stonings and amputations as punishment.
At present Somali pirates hold 15 vessels and more than 300 hostages.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security, said she will visit Africa next month to press for more help in prosecuting pirates arrested by European warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden.